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Mar. 1 2010 - 5:12 pm | 126 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Starting a New Publishing Business—A Transformative Time in Life

The following post appeared as a guest editorial in the March 2010 issue of FOLIO: magazine.

A new biography of Henry Luce recounts how hard it was for him to raise funding for what, in 1922, was still called Fact, “the weekly newspaper.” “It’s an awful strain on the nerves,” he wrote, “because one has to believe and believe and believe.”

This is a test that mere proprietors never have to face. When I took over as managing editor of TIME in 1992, the founder’s belief was no longer necessary, having 70 years’ confirmation behind it. The TIME staff executed Luce’s vision without the slightest thought that it was once only a theory and an ambition rather than a magazine, and without the slightest fear that it could fail.

Having recently started StoryRiver Media, a multimedia publishing company, I know now just how stark the difference is between steward and entrepreneur. On a good day, it seems like the difference between warm and cold. On a bad day, it’s the difference between being a vampire and being the victim of one.

New Models Emerging

Entrepreneurial journalism” is the hot new phrase, but let’s be clear: It is a term mothered by dire necessity. The businesses that sustained journalists for so long are foundering, and new models must be devised for the world that engulfed them, which is to say the world of the Internet. That such models are needed is easy to postulate. It is another thing entirely to bet your time, life and fortune on one of them.

Which is why you have to admire Luce, who had barely placed his bet on TIME before he started Life and Fortune (not in that order). He started Fortune, the gorgeous, oversized business magazine, in 1930, as big a publishing gamble as ever was made. And maybe the second biggest gamble came a few years later with Life, a gorgeous, oversized general-interest magazine that was so successful that Luce nearly lost the company its shirt (he insisted on charging only a dime for it and locked in ad rates the first year at an enormous loss).

I am no Henry Luce, and my tiny startup is no Time Inc., but in a small way now I know his pain. Working over due-diligence spreadsheets that stretch from the heady but chimerical “Year One” into the almost wholly fabulous “Out Years” is about the bravest exercise I can imagine undertaking without a weapon. Quite apart from the matter of your own success and security is the responsibility for those you ask to come along as investors and employees. Then there is the matter of the work itself—will it be as good as your imagination tells you it can be? Can it really be as transformative as you think?

Yes and yes, always yes. No other answer is useful. When others occur, as from time to time they will, spouses can sometimes be a source of inspiration.

“You know, Karen,” I said to my wife while writing this column, “they say startups are always 10 times harder than you expect. I don’t know if I can work 10 times harder than this.”

“Who are you kidding,” she snarled.

In my previous life, I did not need that kind of . . . support. When you go to a job you know how to do—a job that was created decades before, one that lots of people have done before you and for which you have spent years preparing—you do so without the sense that there is a future-shaped hole in your gut and soul. Every leadership role requires self-confidence, but starting your own business demands something more like religious faith—not a belief in God as some kind of Gorilla-Backer in the Sky, but a deep sort of trust in the acuity of your vision.

Mine tells me that we are at a tipping point for media, one as fundamental as the migration from manuscript to print. The broadband Internet is not a new distribution channel for print but a new medium, one as distinct in its capabilities as radio, television, film or ink-on-paper.

Journalism will be changed in this new medium, but story-telling has lost none of its power in any of the media transitions since humans began painting on the walls of caves. The story is still as compelling and as riveting as fire, and the digital tools available to story-tellers today are more potent than ever before.

That at least is my story, and I’m sticking to it. You just have to believe, and believe, and believe.


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  1. collapse expand

    Bravo for your start up ! And please go on believing and believing!
    Digital publishing is, no doubt, the place where innovation is for a journalist, everything has to be done….and time has come, I think, to start producing if we want to take the train before it runs too fast!
    I entirely share your vision : new media, end of olds formats, possibility and necessity to re-invent the way to tell story with a rich media approach.
    I’m trying to do the same thing in France and to start a digital small company producing multimedia stories for press and enterprises.
    Former editor-in-chief of different french and german tv magazines for arte tv, France 2 tv and France 5tv. I had the chance last spring to work for arte on a digital project, a web plateform devoted to european elections with correspondants in the 27 european countries http://27etmoi.arte.tv/
    An interesting experience althought very different from the kind of multimedia story telling we’re talking about.
    I want to congratulate you and all the Flyp’s team for the great job you’ve done. I followed your editions over the last 18 months with great pleasure . I felt very concerned by the thema you were treating (even if I’m not american) and appreciated the evolution towards a more and more rich media concept.
    I worried when you stop producing and wondered if you were not preparing an Ipad app….
    Well, your start up is a good news. I wish you all the courage and the luck you may need.
    I’ve the feeling you’ve been dreaming of it too hard not to succed! It’s a challenge but also a chance! Good luck from Paris!

    • collapse expand

      Thanks, Catherine. We just moved back from Paris, after six years, eighteen months ago. I wish we had met–who knows, maybe we would have figured out how to do it there! We certainly miss it. I also appreciate your kind words about FLYP, which I will pass on. Again, thanks very much for your encouraging words, and please let me know how your efforts progress….

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I will!
        Here are three links which may interest you :
        In Germany, Die Welt am sonntag launched a paying e-mag.
        In France le Monde just created a web page about webdocumentaries.http://www.lemonde.fr/webdocumentaires/
        Here nobody talks about e-mag yet. Everyone interested in multimedia focuses on webdocumentaries which are very creative. It may seem a luxury “niche” but it merges because we have the CNC, public funds which help financing them.
        artetv also just opened a webpage dedicated to web documentaries.
        Too bad I missed you when you were in Paris, if you come back some days let me know!
        Bonne chance!

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand
    deleted account

    “Having recently started StoryRiver Media, a multimedia publishing company, I know now just how stark the difference is between steward and entrepreneur.”

    It’s a wonderful feeling isn’t it Jim?

    No, I mean that. I’m not being sarcastic here.

    There is no feeling like the feeling you get from creating something from nothing. Yes requires that you have the ability to “believe and believe and believe.”. Most of the time that’s all you’ll have to sustain you. Especially when it’s time to make payroll, and everybody gets paid but you.

    Don’t doubt that you can work “10 times harder”. When it’s your gig, you find a way.

    Good luck

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    About Me

    I'm a refugee from MSM (former editor of Time, Life and People magazines) and founder of StoryRiver Media Inc., where I'm working on the print-to-digital migration--meaning not "repurposing" content for a new distribution channel but the fundamental transformation and reimagination of story-telling and publishing, incorporating video, audio, animation, full-motion infographics, and all the other media, hardware and software platforms, and design techniques that the Internet can support.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 16
    Contributor Since: September 2009
    Location:Washington, D.C.

    What I'm Up To

    In a word…

    I’m the editor-in-chief and founder of StoryRiver Media, a digital and multimedia publishing company that creates device- and platform-agnostic multimedia content for a variety of public and private companies across all publishing genres. StoryRiver Media develops vibrant and dynamic multimedia content for companies that helps expand their brand and reputation at the leading edge of the crafts and arts of digital story-telling. The company also creates products that achieve new educational and persuasive power through the deployment of all possible media, in whatever combination is best suited to the scope and purpose of the material at hand.

    Prior to founding StoryRiver Media, I was the editor-in-chief at FLYP, an online multimedia publication. This position came after a 30-year career in print, during which I was the managing editor of  TimeLife, and People magazines. At each of them, I established several new online and multimedia ventures, including a television show and books program at People; network specials and custom publishing at Life; and at Time a classroom edition and Time.com, the first newsmagazine online.